TORONTO—Growing marijuana is a profitable business for many in Canada and lax criminal penalties do little to deter them.
With criminal fines often under $2,000 and no jail time, many would-be growers see having an indoor marijuana grow operation using high powered lights as an easy way to make mega-money.
But efforts by police to cooperate with other government agencies are making grow-ops look a lot less attractive, says Constable Tim Fanning with the Vancouver Police Department.
Vancouver, the largest city in British Columbia—a province known for its “B.C. bud”—has been a major center for grow-ops producing high-potency marijuana for decades. Organized criminals and outlaw motorcycle gangs often control the trade and use cross-border criminal networks to sell the pot for significantly higher prices in the United States.
To raise the stakes, police now work in conjunction with municipal building inspectors, health inspectors and fire inspectors to enforce a whole range of laws.
"We work with all those agencies and crack down on growers,” Fanning said.
While the fine for growing marijuana is often light, mold that flourishes in grow-op buildings can cost building owners tens of thousands of dollars to remove. Health agencies can deem a building uninhabitable until the problem is fixed, which often requires tearing out walls and carpeting.
Building inspectors can also penalize owners for code violations related to electrical rigging used for lights and water pumps. In some cities, like Vancouver, they can order the building owner to renovate the building to meet current building codes.
In a 60-year-old building, those renos can cost upwards of $60,000, said Fanning.
For building owners who do not operate grow-ops, the prospect of spending huge sums to fix problems related to the practice gives incentive to check up on tenants to make sure they aren’t operating a “grow room.”
“If you own a building, it is wise to inspect it,” said Frank Lamie, deputy fire chief for Toronto, Canada's largest city.
Lamie said a routine inspection every three months will ensure a grow-op doesn’t get started.
Toronto Fire Services won a landmark case this week that resulted in $30,000 worth of fines against a building owner operating a grow-op in the basement. The fines were for fire hazards related to the operation and the lack of enough smoke detectors.
While the merits of criminalizing marijuana production are often hotly debated in Canada, few people support the criminal organizations that have taken control of much of the trade. In fact, the proliferation of these organizations has also become a major deterrent for would-be growers.
This is particularly the case in Vancouver, which has seen a rash of gang- or organized crime-related killings in the past year.
Biker gangs and others carry out “grow-rips” in which they invade a house with a grow-op and steal the crop. They are often armed and people have died in such instances, said Fanning.
"Its a very dangerous business.”
Fanning said some criminal groups will even rip off those that have agreed to grow for them and then inform them they now owe the group money.
Even for people not associated with criminal groups, the danger is ever present.
"Believe me they (grow-ops) are hard to keep secret from other criminals."
While there is a solid movement pushing for the decriminalization of marijuana in Canada, such efforts by police will make those involved in grow-ops increasingly uncomfortable.